“Business meetings are not the enemy. In terms of making the nation more productive and better off, they are builders, not saboteurs,” wrote lawyer, actor, and economist Ben Stein in a New York Times editorial in March. After all of the AIG-incentive bashing and the all-around scapegoating that meetings — specifically, meetings sponsored by firms taking bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program — have been taking lately, it's nice to hear a few people starting to talk about the value of meetings instead of clumping every conference, convention, board meeting, and sales incentive under one big boondoggle umbrella.

To give us all something positive to talk about, a group of industry organizations has developed model meeting policies for companies receiving TARP funds, and has also announced it has begun a research project to determine the actual economic impact of meetings, something it expects will take up to 18 months to pull together. Then there's the Keep America Meeting campaign, created by meeting and event marketing company TBA Global, in partnership with the U.S. Travel Association and with support from the Event Marketing Institute. Endorsed by a nonpartisan group of associations, publishers, and companies (including the MeetingsNet magazines), the goal is to gather 1 million signatures on a petition to draw attention to the importance of meetings to the U.S. economy. (You can add your name to the petition at the keepamericameeting.com Web site.)

This is all great — and overdue. We need to have some real data to quantify all the money that filters down from events, not just in terms of hotel room nights, flights taken, and catering bills, but also in hotel shops, area attractions, restaurants, the shoeshine stand, Starbucks …. The ripples from your average convention are pretty far-reaching. I'm also starting to see more of an appreciation that cutbacks in meetings mean cutbacks in jobs for all the people who support those meetings, from hotel housekeepers to wait staff to cab drivers.

But what doesn't get discussed so much is where I feel the true value of meetings, the real economic impact, lies. Mitchell Beer, CMM, chief company strategist, conference content specialist with The Conference Publishers, really nailed it in a comment he left on our face2face blog. “We focus on the conference halls we book, the guest rooms we reserve, the food and beverage we consume — when our real economic impact flows from the knowledge we deliver and the outcomes that flow from that knowledge. It's a mistake that needs to be corrected.” Sure, it's harder to quantify the economic gains a company gets from what its employees learn at their industry association's annual meeting than it is to measure the net worth of the room nights, but we need to make that effort. That is, after all, the reason we hold meetings to begin with.

Let's not get so lost in the numbers that we forget where our real value proposition lies.